“Happy birthday,” Bishop Nelson Perez said to the hundreds of people gathered to celebrate the 10:30 a.m. Mass on Sept. 2 at St. Julie Billiart Parish for its 40th anniversary.
What began as 14 acres of wooded land on Lear Nagle Road in North Ridgeville has blossomed into a “little church in the woods.” Beginning with approximately 285 families in 1981, the church has grown to nearly 700 families. Parishioners from North Ridgeville and surrounding communities comprise this “little church with a big heart,” as it was described by its founding pastor, Father Richard Gonser.
Now retired, Father Gonser fondly remembered the day in 1978 when Bishop James Hickey handed him the deed to the acreage with the instructions: “Find a place to live, find a place to build a church, find your people and good luck!”
As founding pastor, he did just that. Father Gonser recalled breaking ground for the new church in the spring of 1981 and celebrating the first Mass on Christmas Eve 1981. Prior to the church’s construction — from Aug. 15, 1978 to Dec. 24, 1981 — parishioners attended Mass at nearby Lear North School.
During his homily, Bishop Perez asked the congregation two questions: What is a parish? And what is the Church?
He described a parish as “the most immediate expression of the Church in a given area.” The parish, he said, “brings the presence of Christ to the homes of its people.” He further explained that church is not only a place that we come to, but also a place from which we are sent. He used the term “missio,” which means “to send” in Latin.
In defining church, the bishop explained that there are two levels of church. There is a church in small letters — the institutional part. This level of the Church comes and goes as the people come and go. The church on this level is comprised of the people and the administration and therefore, it always is changing, he said.
He defined the other level — the Church in capital letters — as being the mystical body of Christ or the Eucharist. It never changes; it lives forever. It is this level that “will save our soul” as it is the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ. This is the level that has traveled through time, the bishop said, adding that Jesus told the apostles to go out to all the nations and proclaim the Good News. Had they not done this, we would not be here today celebrating 40 years of St. Julie Billiart, he said.
Father George Vrabel, St. Julie’s pastor, asked parishioners to share their memories from the last 40 years. They recalled the anticipation of building a new parish, children and grandchildren’s baptisms and celebrating wedding anniversaries as a few of their memories.
Thirty-four founding families remain as parishioners and many were in attendance.
Father Ed Weist, a retired priest who served as diocesan chancellor when St. Julie Billiart Parish was established, also shared his memories of the parish’s early years. He recalled being asked by then auxiliary Bishop James Griffin to go to Rome to study. The plan was that he would become chancellor when he returned.
“Little did I know the number of committees I would have to serve on, one of which was the building commission — something I knew nothing about,” he said. “Father Gonser came in with quite an extensive proposal and plans of how he wanted to make a pole barn into a beautiful church. He had answers for all of the questions the committee asked and was quite convincing as you can now see 40 years later.” Father Weist said.
Bishop Perez gave this advice to the audience: “Remember the past and where you came from. Celebrate the present and where you are and imagine the future and where you are going.”
St. Julie Billiart is at 5500 Lear Nagle Road. The parish grounds also include meditation gardens dedicated to the Blessed Mother, St. Francis of Assisi, a memorial to the unborn and more.
For additional information, visit stjuliebilliart.org.